Sticks and stones may break my bones, but stigma always hurts me
By Andrea Arscott, Columnist
I’m at the clinic. I have a needle in my arm, and my eyes are sealed shut. I imagine life, if I test positive…
Two weeks later, I call the doctor for the results. My test is negative. I never think it’ll come out positive, but what if it does? Concerns about stigma fill my mind. Would HIV be the worst thing that could happen to me? No, struggling with addiction or homelessness would definitely be worse. Cancer, dangerous drivers, food poisoning, drugs, cigarettes—any of them could kill me before HIV did. Despite common misconception that HIV/AIDS are a death sentence, HIV/AIDS-related illnesses posted a global mortality rate of roughly 4.5 per cent in 2012 worldwide.
I work with people living with HIV and/or hep C. They have feelings and they have hearts—we call them human beings. We’re all equal, which means everyone is susceptible to HIV. Labels and demeaning comments sting and encourage isolation, depression, and discrimination. You cannot get HIV from hugging, shaking hands, kissing, or sharing cutlery and drinks. Maybe you’ll get the common cold, the flu, tuberculosis, herpes simplex type 1 (cold sores), and other illnesses from exchanging saliva, but not HIV.
Stigma around HIV still exists even though you can’t get the virus from someone who is positive, unless you’re swapping sexual fluids or blood with that person. Even then, the risk of transmission may be low depending on the amount of HIV in the body, as an ongoing study has found a nonexistent rate of HIV transmission, either by anal or vaginal sex, in cases where participants had a viral load under 200 copies/ml. So, if you refuse to work with someone who has HIV, you’re discriminating against that person and contributing to further stigmatization. Unless you work in porn, your job probably doesn’t involve sharing semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids, and blood with your co-workers. And if you are in a position where you’re exposed to these fluids, you’d likely use protection and follow universal precautions to decrease the chances of acquiring HIV.
Now that you’re wiser on working relationships, let’s talk about personal ones: you may not realize it, but you might have a friend who contracted HIV from their mother during childbirth. Although your friend has been living a healthy life without symptoms, they’re too scared to tell you they’re HIV-positive for fear of being tossed aside like last week’s lettuce. Maybe they overheard you talking about people living with HIV in a negative way, and rather than speaking up, they bowed their head in silence and shame. An illness doesn’t make a person any less deserving of respect, kindness, friendship, and love. A true friend sticks by you and offers support.
Nowadays, as reported in the Vancouver Sun, there’s less than a one per cent chance of mother-to-child transmission, which means couples with at least one HIV-positive partner can consider having children like any other HIV-negative couple.
There is no need to fear or disassociate from people living with HIV. With advances in treatment, it’s possible for someone with HIV to live a long and fulfilling life. Thanks to Dr. Julio Montaner and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, advances in treatment have accounted for a 60 per cent decrease in new cases of HIV since 1996. Although this illness is not something you want, it’s manageable with anti-HIV drugs.
Imagine what life would be like if you were diagnosed with such an illness. Spend some time in an uncomfortable pair of shoes that stop you from stepping forward because doors keep slamming in front of you. Only with understanding, compassion, and empathy can we conquer the stigma associated with HIV.
Get tested for hep C, HIV, and STIs at the New Westminster Health Unit at 218-610 Sixth Street in Royal City Mall Wednesday or Friday, from 1:30–3 p.m. by calling to book an appointment. Ask for free condoms or come down to the Purpose Society at 40 Begbie Street to get some!
As always, you can get your questions answered anonymously by emailing email@example.com